The political fallout from the Panama Papers has been felt throughout the world. So far, the trove of leaked documents has exposed shady financial activities involving powerful and wealthy figures such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s friends, Chinese actor Jackie Chan and Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi. The scandal even forced Iceland’s prime minister, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, to resign in disgrace.
In the United States, however, the reaction to the Panama Papers has been somewhat muted. No Americans have been implicated in the massive leak — not yet, at least — and the revelations, although tantalizing, have simply provided concrete evidence of something many already knew. Yet, while nobody should be surprised that the financial and political elite stash their wealth in offshore tax havens, the Panama Papers explicitly document the unfairness of a rigged system that deprives countries of the funds needed to make crucial public investments. That is particularly relevant at the current moment in U.S. politics.
Indeed, that fundamental unfairness is at the heart of the Democratic presidential race, which, last week, descended into petty bickering. In advance of the Wisconsin primary, in which voters handed insurgent candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) his sixth victory in seven contests (before his win in Wyoming over the weekend), front-runner and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton not so subtly suggested that Sanders had no business being in the race. “He’s a relatively new Democrat,” Clinton told Politico reporter Glenn Thrush, “and, in fact, I’m not even sure he is one.”
Clinton’s jab might have been nothing more than a personal attack on Sanders. But it also served as a political broadside against the progressive populism that Sanders has injected into the conversation, an attempt to beat back the challenge to the establishment that his candidacy represents. And it was a reminder that, although Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s odious bluster still dominates the headlines, there is an important debate happening in the Democratic primaries about the direction of not just the country, but also the party.
One issue on which there is a genuine divide between the Democratic candidates is trade. And although the debate has largely focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Clinton now opposes, the TPP is only the latest in a line of trade deals rigged in favor of the corporate elite and supported by the Democratic establishment. In 2011, for example, President Obama, then-Secretary Clinton and the Republican majority in Congress all supported the approval of a new trade agreement with Panama. The deal was enacted despite the opposition of many progressives, including Sanders.
Trade policy, however, is just one of the many issues on which Sanders and progressive leaders such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are challenging the party orthodoxy. As John Nichols has written in the Nation, the “Warren wing” of the Democratic Party, as it is now commonly known, has adopted a different kind of “values-based politics” — one in which fairness is among the primary objectives in everything from tax policy, to education, to health care. And as a result, they are changing how we define what it means to be a Democrat. Today, the Warren wing has become an ascendant force within the party, so much so that during her campaign, Clinton has moved to the left on many issues, including trade.
Take, for example, the role of income inequality in our political debate and Democratic politics in particular. When Obama embraced the issue as a theme of his reelection campaign, declaring income inequality “the defining issue of our time,” The Post’s Chris Cillizza reported that he had “borrowed rhetorically from Massachusetts Senate candidate — and liberal heroine — Elizabeth Warren to make his case.” Now five years later, the Warren wing’s influence is apparent in the national momentum for a higher minimum wage, a cause that Sanders has long championed. It can be seen in the congressional support for the “The People’s Budget” from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which Sanders co-founded in 1991. It is evident in the Obama administration’s recent steps to crack down on loopholes that enable corporate tax “inversions.” And it, along with the Sanders campaign, continues to inspire local candidates and activists across the country.
As progressive activist and pundit Van Jones recently put it, “there is a rebellion in this party” that has been simmering for years and is gaining steam. Instead of working to suppress it, however, Clinton and the party elite should embrace dissenting views among Democrats and encourage participation in the debate. This will be especially critical to keep prospective voters engaged and mobilized through the Democratic convention and the election. If they do, the party will be more vibrant and better positioned for victory in November and moving forward. But if they keep fighting to limit what it means to be a Democrat, the party will suffer as a result, as will the country.
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